When self-isolation and mandatory quarantines became part of the social distancing required to hinder the spread of the coronavirus, students of the Moscow Theological Seminary of The United Methodist Church turned to their online covenant groups to maintain contact and fellowship.
These virtual gatherings, based on the original idea of John Wesley’s “bands,” were introduced to Moscow Seminary students by staff and laity of Mt. Pisgah United Methodist Church of Johns Creek in the North Georgia Conference. The existence and regular meetings of these groups allowed a seamless continuation of fellowship and spiritual disciplines, even during isolation.
The school has always had to deal with the problem of distance. The Eurasia Episcopal Area covers 11 time zones in Russia, with a territory of 7 million square miles. John Wesley famously declared, “The world is my parish,” and Eurasian Methodists like to say their bishop, Eduard Khegay, has the largest parish in the world.
In order to provide unity and connection between seminary students and to allow them to live and work in their hometowns, the seminary found creative solutions to deal with Eurasia’s vast distances.
One solution was to have students gather in Moscow four times a year for two weeks at a time. The rest of the year, students work on coursework, serve their local churches, and are employed locally in their native cities in Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Kazakhstan or Kyrgyzstan.
However, the fellowship classically provided in seminaries with a traditional academic model needed to be supported while the students were away from the seminary building. A model for such year-round fellowship emerged in 2015 through the Moscow Seminary-North Georgia Conference Mission Bridge in the form of covenant groups.
The model is for the covenant groups to meet weekly for about 90 minutes. The members of each group covenant to make the group a priority and to commit to a year. Each meeting starts with the classic Wesleyan question, “How is it with your soul?” Many groups use Wesley’s self-examination questions that he initially wrote for the “Holy Club.” They study the Bible to discern how it should be applied to their lives. Common prayers are an important part of the meeting, and personal spiritual growth goals are set for the next week.
“For me, the value of covenant groups is that we have the opportunity for mutual counseling, confession of sins, spiritual enrichment and growth together with other brothers — some of whom are also ministers, who sometimes face similar challenges to me,” said Dr. Alexander Shevchenko, who is pastor of Luhansk United Methodist Church in Eastern Ukraine as well as a staff doctor at a rehabilitation facility. He is scheduled to graduate from the seminary in June.
Women meet with women and men meet with men to achieve an atmosphere of deep trust and security. They share the challenges they face in both their spiritual and personal lives. Confession in a confidential circle of trusted friends and a supportive prayer has a freeing effect.
“Many of women’s joys and the challenges of motherhood, marriage, beauty, and health can only be understood by women. The Skype Covenant Group creates a safe environment for that kind of openness and vulnerability,” said Elena Melnikova, the Moscow Seminary vice president for Development and Administration and a leader of one of the groups.
The seminary students are the first wave of leaders and members of covenant groups. Some students and seminary staff have recruited other pastors and church members outside of the student body.
After three years of such spiritual discipline, each Skype Covenant Group member is prepared to host her or his own group. Several students have already started their own covenant groups in their churches. Some of them typically meet in person, but with quarantine measures in place, they already have a proven model for meeting on Skype.
“The church and other organizations have only faced the need for online communication as the primary means of communication in the wake of the coronavirus infection. We have been praying and supporting each other online in our Skype Covenant Groups for a while,” said Shevchenko. “The value of this experience in the social distancing conditions due to coronavirus has increased dramatically.”
Although some groups had been meeting in person, the transition to Skype was not difficult.
"Of course, the coronavirus situation had a big impact on our group. Elderly people in the group don't have the ability to Skype. Our initial thought was to announce a vacation, but then we decided to meet remotely via Skype anyway, those who can, and just pray for the rest (especially the elderly) at these meetings," said Yelena Lyovushkina, a corporate attorney from Volgograd in South Russia and a second-year seminary student.
The Rev. Natalya Prokhorova, senior pastor of Samara United Methodist Church in Samara, Russia, said the requirement to stay home during the coronavirus allows more time for Skype Covenant Group meetings and “reflection on the Word.
“You don't feel isolated only in your family. In our group we also pray for the healing of this disaster in our country and around the world,” Prokhorova said. She was recruited by one of the seminary staff for her group and then opened two groups in her church on her own.
Currently, there are over 30 covenant groups in Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. Most of them meet on Skype. In the classic Wesleyan spirit of connection, they provide a model for spiritual growth and development even when Christians cannot meet together in person — whether due to distance under normal circumstances, or in extraordinary times requiring isolation and quarantines.
Today, in Russia and around the world, the coronavirus pandemic has provided a unique opportunity to look at the origins of the Wesleyan revival and to reimagine how its constitutive elements could provide a successful way into the future post-coronavirus world.
Nikolaev is president of the Moscow Theological Seminary of The United Methodist Church and E. Stanley Jones Professor of Evangelism at the seminary.